Its a frequent canard from those who have objections to Christianity – the idea that Jesus was a much nicer man than Paul. Jesus is love and compassion. Paul was a misogynist and homophobe (i.e. he hated women and gays). Lurking behind this is the idea that Jesus never really claimed to be God – it was his followers and the early church who got carried away, made claims on his behalf that he never would have endorsed, and “invented” Christianity as a religion.
In the early 1990’s, A.N. Wilson, a British author, biographer, journalist, and lapsed Christian wrote a book titled, Jesus: A Life. He dismissed the biblical accounts as completely unreliable fabrications and proceeded to tell the world an entertaining story about the Life of Jesus as revealed to A.N. Wilson – without much evidence of course, but very imaginative.A very important scholarly response was forthcoming from the learned Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright in 1997: What Saint Paul Really Said. This short (180 page) volume is rooted in thorough scholarship and a lifetime of study and appreciation for the New Testament texts and the history of the New Testament world. Wright decisively refutes A.N.Wilson on every point in dispute.
But Wright’s book is useful in ways that transcend its immediate purpose. His first chapter is a concise and very useful outline of the history of Pauline studies in the 20th century. His second chapter is by far the best discussion of who the Pharisees were that I have ever read. His third chapter focuses on the original meaning of the word “gospel” in the Greek and Roman world. I thought I knew what the word meant, but I was wrong. It is a technical term in Greek, meaning the announcement of a great military victory, or the rule of a new king or emperor. Jesus death and resurrection fit both categories, of course, but it was startling for me to think that the announcement in the marketplace of a new emperor was an “evangelion” as well. This changes what we must think of the political dimension of Christianity. The Roman world proclaimed, “Caesar is Lord!” When Christians proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord!” they were on a collision course with Roman culture, Roman religion, and Roman politics.
Wright’s fourth chapter examines how Paul could proclaim that Jesus was God within the context of strict Jewish mono-theism. He does this by examining closely three core passages from Paul’s letters: 1 Corinthians 8:1-6, Philippians 2:5-11, and Romans 8:1-11. Wright’s study is masterful, insightful, and inspiring.
Wright’s fifth chapter analyzes Paul’s engagement with and challenge to the pagan worldview of his day. Again by closely analyzing what Paul wrote, Wright demonstrates Paul’s faithfulness to Jesus’ teaching as he confronts the pagan world.
Wright’s sixth chapter is a detailed analysis of the word “righteousness” in Paul’s writings. This is a rich vein to mine and Wright uses it to show Paul’s understanding of how Jesus fulfilled the Law and established a new covenantal relationship that included both Jew and Gentile.
Chapter seven analyzes the word “justification” – a concept at the core of Christian theology.
In chapter eight, Wright moves on to examine Paul’s view of the Church. Paul, according to Wright, sees the Church as a community focused on worship, hope in the resurrection, holiness, love, and mission
Chapter nine is a rousing call to take these New Testament concepts and live them out today: Gospel, Justification, and Righteousness
Chapter ten is a reflective summary on the original question: Did Paul found Christianity? Wright’s answer is a decisive “NO!” Paul faithfully taught that which was delivered unto him and his teachings are consistent with and faithful to his Lord, Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the most striking passage from the book for me is the following:
“The gospel is not a set of techniques for making people Christians. The gospel is the announcement that Jesus is Lord!”
This is a rich book. Worth reading and re-reading. I highly recommend it as an introduction to the writings of Paul in particular and the fundamental biblical vocabulary and concepts in general. You can order it directly from Greenleaf Press by clicking here, paperback, 180 pages, $17.00.
And God be praised for the Bishop of Durham!